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INTERVIEW: Toots Hibbert Unplugged
Thomas Hasson , September 7th, 2012 04:06

On the 6th of August, 1962, Jamaica became an independent nation. Britain would no longer control the affairs of the Caribbean country it had ruled over since 1670. One of the first acts the newly elected Prime Minister and the locally elected Cabinet had to take was the responsibility of developing a constitution, an army, currency, passports, symbols and emblems for the country.

1962 was also the year that a vocal trio known as The Maytals began recording their first album, Never Grow Old - Presenting The Maytals, at Clement ‘Coxsone’ Dodd’s Studio 1. Backed by Dodd’s house band, The Skatalites, The Maytals’ debut release was a success across Jamaica. The group continued recording with Dodd at Studio 1 until 1965 when they began working with Prince Buster and then Byron Lee, their reputation and success continually growing.

However, in 1966 one third of The Maytals was arrested on drugs possession charges; Toots Hibbert was jailed for close to a year. But his band waited for him. Upon his release the group renamed themselves Toots And The Maytals and proceeded to take not just Jamaica, but the world, by storm.

Their 1968 single, ‘Do The Reggay’, is widely credited with coining the word reggae (albeit spelt differently) and put the reformed band back on the map. They followed up their genre-titling record with a string of hits that included ‘Pressure Drop’, ‘Monkey Man’, and ‘54-46 Was My Number’ (a song about Toots’ imprisonment).

It’s been 50 years since Jamaica achieved independence and 50 years since Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert, Henry ‘Raleigh’ Gordon, and Nathaniel ‘Jerry’ McCarthy first stepped foot in Studio 1, and for the band leader Toots, not much has changed in that time.

“It’s the same way of working. We always make sure that everything is delivered in the proper way. The music has to be good and since that time we’ve been doing good, no?” A rhetorical question if ever there was one.

I’m speaking to Toots about his latest album; Unplugged On Strawberry Hill. It’s his fifth live album from over 50 full length records, but the first to be entirely acoustic. The album features stripped back covers of the group’s hits from the last half decade. Toots explained that he chose to finally record an acoustic album, live, because “we’ve done all sorts of things but we never tried that sort of thing, I’d never tried that before.”

After 50 years of performing, you’d forgive a man for wanting to rest, relax and enjoy his retirement. This isn’t for Toots though: “It keeps my mind clean, and makes me do things alright, instead of try to do it wrong. I do music when I can, I do everything when I can,” he explains; “A normal day is just music. And even if not a normal day it’s just music. I play guitar, I play bass, I play a lot of instruments.

“Every day I have something to do, so I keep working. And every day becomes special to me because God made me. So it is very special.”

Toots’ faith has informed his lyrics and music for the last half-decade. His voice is like that of a gospel singer, his live shows close to religious, inspiring to all those who see him perform.

He says: "You get your inspiration from the life that you live. The way you treat people, the way you treat yourself. The way you think about people and the way you think about yourself. Whether you’re white or you’re black, you’re still family coming from God.”

Having seen his country achieve independence, recorded in Jamaica’s most famous studios, worked with some of the greatest artists and producers to hail from that tiny Caribbean island and tour the world over for the last 50 years, Toots has learned a lot. He ends our discussion with a piece of advice for anyone else wishing to last as long as he has in the music industry: “I would advise young people in music to try to do good lyrics, to try to make the music positive. Because if you make the music negative it is not good for the children in the school, not good for the parents. It’s negative.”

In 1962, Toots Hibbert took on the responsibility to project positivity across the world through his music, and he has done so successfully for 50 years. His advice should be heeded.

Unplugged On Strawberry Hill is out now via Metropolis